J.G Ballard, the genre busting English science fiction writer responsible for such novels as The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise and Empire of the Sun as well as some of the finest short stories in world literature, frequently remarked that he really wanted to be a painter in the surrealist tradition that he so loved instead of a writer.
This deep reverence and constant engagement with the visual arts can be most clearly seen in his demented and wildly perverse cult classic collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition. Referencing Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Dominguez, Matta, Bellmer, Delvaux, Tanguy as well as Pop Artists Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol in the frequent free association tests and ‘condensed novels’ that comprise the text, The Atrocity Exhibition could easily be used as a textbook primer on surrealism and popular culture in the sixties.
In 1990 RE/Search Publications issued an expanded edition with four new stories, Ballard’s bizarre yet illuminating annotations, disturbing illustrations by the medical illustrator/graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and photographs by Ana Barrado of brutalist buildings and weapon ranges. It also features a preface by the Hitman for the Apocalypse himself, William S. Burroughs.
Below are some of the many paintings mentioned in the text, some of which are very well known and others less so.
Every nerve ending in her body told the Ingénue that she had to get the hell out of dodge. Time. To. Leave. Right quick in fact right now if not sooner like yesterday preferably. The vague anxiety that was the hallmark of life in Uneasy City had deepened into nothing less than sharply defined dread and terror. Terror and dread.
The clocks, never the fastest in Uneasy City, had slowed down to a crawl during the blistering summer of the Fourth Decadency. Although resistant to change the City couldn’t deny that something wicked was coming this way, the very air was charged with potent change. In the streets the horse’s hooves would shatter and grind down the already splintered bones and skulls that lined the cobblestones. Several virulent viruses had taken hold of the panicking populace, but even with the rampant mortality overcrowding was severe, as a constant swell from the war-torn provinces and drought stricken territories filled the Uneasy City to bursting point.
The sense of imminent catastrophe generated a sinister erotic tension that was evident everywhere. One of the few jobs the Ingénue had been offered lately was a bit part in a dubious movie about the orgies that were so fashionable during the period of the Black Death. Billed as a certain kind of historical fiction it could have been shot as a straightforward documentary during these uncertain times. She could this feel eroticising current coursing all throughout the City; in the hesitant country girls with their jaunty hats embracing each other in doorways, in the fleshy middle aged divorcees reclining naked in the lobbies of faded hotels, in the society ladies somnambulating at night through the arcades and alcoves of the station where the train never stops; but most of all in the calculating glances of be-suited men who could no longer be bothered to conceal their predatory inner selves.
Through a contact of a contact the Ingénue had heard about a train that would almost connect to a boat that could take her away from this whole benighted region of Centralia. She packed in a hurry, barely pausing to rifle through the medicine cabinets. Along with four days worth of outfits she concealed a little heat, just in case she had to put someone on ice to get where she was going.
The incantatory prose poem What I Believe from 1984 is a crystallised distillation of Ballard’s artistic credo. Here are all the signature trade-marks and obsessions: car crashes, deserted beaches and abandoned hotels as well as his extraordinarily odd musings on the real appeal of celebrities. It is, as always with Ballard, idiosyncratic, bizarre and strangely beautiful.
The above image is Brigid Marlin’s reproduction of Paul Delvaux’s 1939 painting The Mirror that was destroyed in WWII. After the commercial and critical success of Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun and the subsequent film adaption by Steven Speilberg, he commissioned Marlin to copy two of Delvaux’s lost paintings for his home in the London suburb of Shepperton.
What I Believe
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.
I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics of our imaginations.
I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel; in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.
I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart; in the junction of their disenchanted bodies with the enchanted chromium rails of supermarket counters; in their warm tolerance of my perversions.
I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic controllers at out-of-season airports.
I believe in the genital organs of great men and women, in the body postures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Di, in the sweet odors emanating from their lips as they regard the cameras of the entire world.
I believe in madness, in the truth of the inexplicable, in the common sense of stones, in the lunacy of flowers, in the disease stored up for the human race by the Apollo astronauts.
I believe in nothing.
I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dali, Titian, Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, Redon, Durer, Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, the Watts Towers, Boecklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.
I believe in the impossibility of existence, in the humour of mountains, in the absurdity of electromagnetism, in the farce of geometry, in the cruelty of arithmetic, in the murderous intent of logic.
I believe in adolescent women, in their corruption by their own leg stances, in the purity of their disheveled bodies, in the traces of their pudenda left in the bathrooms of shabby motels.
I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown, in the stone thrown by a small child that carries with it the wisdom of statesmen and midwives.
I believe in the gentleness of the surgeon’s knife, in the limitless geometry of the cinema screen, in the hidden universe within supermarkets, in the loneliness of the sun, in the garrulousness of planets, in the repetitiveness of ourselves, in the inexistence of the universe and the boredom of the atom.
I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows, in the messianic insights of the radiator grilles of showroom automobiles, in the elegance of the oil stains on the engine nacelles of 747s parked on airport tarmacs.
I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.
I believe in the derangement of the senses: in Rimbaud, William Burroughs, Huysmans, Genet, Celine, Swift, Defoe, Carroll, Coleridge, Kafka.
I believe in the designers of the Pyramids, the Empire State Building, the Berlin Fuehrerbunker, the Wake Island runways.
I believe in the body odors of Princess Di.
I believe in the next five minutes.
I believe in the history of my feet.
I believe in migraines, the boredom of afternoons, the fear of calendars, the treachery of clocks.
I believe in anxiety, psychosis and despair.
I believe in the perversions, in the infatuations with trees, princesses, prime ministers, derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal), clouds and birds.
I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination.
I believe in Tokyo, Benidorm, La Grande Motte, Wake Island, Eniwetok, Dealey Plaza.
I believe in alcoholism, venereal disease, fever and exhaustion.
I believe in pain.
I believe in despair.
I believe in all children.
I believe in maps, diagrams, codes, chess-games, puzzles, airline timetables, airport indicator signs.
I believe all excuses.
I believe all reasons.
I believe all hallucinations.
I believe all anger.
I believe all mythologies, memories, lies, fantasies, evasions.
I believe in the mystery and melancholy of a hand, in the kindness of trees, in the wisdom of light.
As a child Paul Delvaux devoured the work of the writer Jules Verne, especially Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and characters and scenes from Verne would populate Delvaux’s canvas throughout his career. The eccentric Victorian professors are frequently the only male (and fully clothed) figures in the predominantly female (and undressed) Uneasy City that is the setting for all Delvaux’s paintings.
Silent Night is from his later period and there is a variant entitled The Girls From the Provinces that features the same cast of characters in different positions and set in the late afternoon as opposed to night-time. The embracing girls from the provinces, on the right, make explicit Delvaux’s fascination with lesbianism that is usually only hinted at in his paintings.